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Utah Business

Remote work would clean up our air, employ our rural communities, and make our state more competitive for business.

Utah wants to incentivize companies to work remotely

Remote work has been on UCAIR’s drawing board of potential clean air policies for some years. They just couldn’t figure out how to get the state’s politicians and businesses on board. “All our data before [the stay home directive] showed three major stumbling blocks. One was attitudes—executives, in particular, like to be around people,” Thom Carter, executive director of UCAIR says. Other concerns included a perception that productivity declines when workers work remotely and a belief that doing so would cost businesses more money by forcing them to provide laptops and other equipment for their employees.

UCAIR tried convincing local businesses that remote work was good for the environment and for the local economy, but it was a hard sell. Then came the pandemic and the stay-home orders, and something remarkable happened—global concentrations of air pollution fell by as much as 60 percent, proving the potential environmental benefits were even greater than previously imagined. “Necessity is often the mother of invention, and people went home,” Carter says. As they did, local attitudes toward remote work began to rapidly shift.

In June, state legislators began working on a bill that would expand remote work opportunities for state employees in the interest of air quality. But what of private businesses? Should the state encourage, or even mandate, remote work on a broader scale?

Air quality scientists say that taking regulatory steps to preserve the improvements in Utah’s air quality would pay dividends. But others, including Carter, are skeptical that Utah politics would support a mandate—and it may not even be necessary. In a recent survey, Utah business leaders expressed support for increased remote work. The “new normal” may indeed lead Utah to a low-carbon workforce, with only a few tweaks to state policy.

Remote work would clean up our air, employ our rural communities, and make our state more competitive for business.

Commuting is more detrimental to our air than we thought

“Many people noted how city haze cleared, dust settled, and general air quality improved during COVID-19 lockdowns,” says Zander Venter, the author of a new paper on global air pollution declines during COVID-19. The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, estimated that lockdown events reduced concentrations of certain pollutants between 31-60 percent across 34 countries.

But the virus arrived late in Utah, and the governor issued his stay home directive in March and April—months where Utah typically enjoys some of its best air quality.

The timing has caused some to assert that Utah didn’t experience the same air quality impacts seen in other regions. But improvements were nonetheless present—they just weren’t as visible, according to Logan Mitchell, an assistant research professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

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In May, Mitchell dug into data from an air quality monitoring station at Hawthorne Elementary near downtown Salt Lake City. That site, he says, saw significant reductions in two critical pollutants. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide fell 36.4 percent during the shutdown, and nitric oxide plummeted 57.4 percent. “So when people ask me, which number, how much has air quality improved, to me it’s somewhere between these two numbers,” Mitchell says. “It was somewhere from 30-60 percent better.”

Utah may have missed out on the dramatically clearer skies, but the data is consistent with results seen around the world, Mitchell says. Global satellite data show clear reduction in nitrogen dioxide in cities and even towns wherever the pandemic led to stay-home orders and shutdowns. “You can see all the way up into Ogden and Park City, and even places like Delta and Wyoming, where a whole bunch of coal plants weren’t operating as much,” Mitchell says.

While a reduction in electrical consumption and generation, as well as decreased industrial activity, likely played a role in cutting emissions, that data has yet to be released. With UDOT already reporting a 40-50 percent reduction in statewide traffic, Mitchell believes there is a clear connection between the reduced number of cars on the roads and improved air quality, and Zander agrees. On a global scale, he says, “we found large decreases in nitrogen dioxide that were clearly linked to declines in human mobility patterns.”

The next interesting experiment, Mitchell says, is whether high ozone days return to Salt Lake City this summer. “So far we have not had as many moderate or unhealthy days” as usual,” he says, “and I think it’s because traffic is still something like 90 percent of what it used to be because there are still people working from home.”

This year’s experiment has raised another question: if teleworking is so good for the environment, is it sustainable for the economy? The conditions that existed this spring are unsustainable, Zander says, but there could be other options, including the adoption of electric vehicles, increased public transit, and pushing for the adoption of more remote working positions where possible.

State employees are working toward permanent remote work

Poor air quality has been a blight on Salt Lake-area businesses and residents for the better part of this last decade. According to a study completed this winter by researchers at Brigham Young University, air pollution costs Utah’s economy $1.8 billion annually. Pollution also shortens the average Utahn’s lifespan by two years, with nearly a quarter of Utah residents losing five years of life or more.

Although Utah’s red air days draw the most attention, these impacts aren’t tied exclusively to days when the air is visibly unhealthy. “There is no safe level of air pollution,” Mitchell says. “There are still impacts on human health at low levels.”

It may not be possible for Utah’s entire workforce, Mitchell continues, but based on this spring’s data, increased remote work could go a long way toward improving both economic and human health.

Utah lawmakers are already on board with the idea. During a June 15 meeting, members of the economic development and workforce services committee agreed unanimously to begin working on solutions that could enable more state employees to work from home after deeming the current number of government employees who work remotely unacceptably low.

But that’s just state employees. Carter, who has worked extensively with state lawmakers during his tenure with UCAIR, doesn’t believe there is much appetite for mandating remote work in private businesses. Yet a mandate may not be necessary, he says.

As Utah began to emerge from lockdown in June, UCAIR surveyed both employees and employers to get a sense of whether attitudes toward telecommuting had changed during the course of the pandemic. The results, Carter says, are encouraging.

As of the time of the survey, 97 percent of organizations included in the study reported that some portion of their workforce was still working remotely, with 57 percent saying their entire company continued to work remotely. Where 60 percent of employers expressed a positive attitude toward remote work prior to the shutdown, executive approval had shot up to 86 percent in June, with managers citing cost savings, improved employee mental health, and increased productivity as reasons for the change of opinion.

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Employees said they, too, noticed these benefits while working remotely during the shutdown. Of surveyed employees, 85 percent said they saved money thanks to working remotely, while 72 percent said they had more time to spend with family, and 68 percent said they now had better work-life balance. 

What’s more, 95 percent of survey respondents—both employees and executives—said they wanted to continue working remotely when the pandemic ends. Executives also indicated that they would support implementing policies that allow some workers to work remotely during episodes of poor air quality. 

“When we look at opportunities, options and ideas, we know that there could be, and should be, some momentum at the very minimum around doing something for air quality,” Carter surmises. “At a maximum, we’re looking at a total change in behavior for how we approach working.”

Incentivizing remote work could help companies switch to remote work indefinitely  

Even if Utah businesses adopt remote work voluntarily, they’ll still need support from government policies, Carter says.

According to the UCAIR survey, most employees reported that remote work worked well for them. However, they identified several factors that could have made the transition easier, including the need for better office furniture and equipment at home, digital tools to make online work easier, and faster home internet connections.

Many of these can be provided by an employer, but government policy could make the transition easier. The state could, for example, extend tax credits to remote employees who must furnish their own home office or internet.

UCAIR and state regulators are currently in talks about policy directions that could incentivize remote work, and state officials indicated they could not speak on the record about the content of these discussions. However, Cameron Diehl, executive director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said the most pressing need across the state is access to broadband internet.

“One lesson we have seen is that you need sufficient broadband infrastructure in order to work or do school from home, and some communities outside the Wasatch Front don’t have that infrastructure,” Diehl says. “The ones that do could see this as an economic opportunity. You could say to a potential employee, “you can do your job at your office in a city on the Wasatch Front, or you can come down to central Utah and have access to the great outdoors. I’ve heard from multiple city leaders who say this is a tremendous opportunity for us to attract a workforce here.”

A shift to remote work could forever change the economic landscape for rural communities, where bringing in as few as 20 new jobs can be a game-changer, Diehl says, if those communities are able to access broadband. But even in the state’s largest cities, he says, remote work could require a reconsideration of how taxes are used to facilitate development.

“We will be rethinking economic development, particularly with respect to land use and transportation, he says. “One hundred new employees may not mean 100 bodies coming into that building every morning.”

These conversations are already underway among business leaders and at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, according to GOED executive director Val Hale. “I think you’re going to see a lot of businesses reexamining the way they utilize real estate,” he says. “There are some I think will cut back on the amount of office space they have.”

That, combined with a potential improvement in air quality—which Hale characterized as one of the few negatives to locating a business in Utah—could cause the state to become competitive on the national stage in a way it has never been before. “Utah workers will suddenly be fair game for companies in California and New York,” Hale says, “if they can work from home for a company in another state…. Utah companies, on the other hand, can poach employees from other states.”

This has all kinds of implications beyond the distribution of tax dollars and infrastructure spending, Hale says. Out-of-state companies, which have long coveted the renowned Utah work ethic, could introduce a new level of competition, potentially creating a more competitive labor market. That could make life difficult for Utah’s own businesses, Hale says. But if a worker in Utah is able to earn California wages, it could also increase Utahns’ spending power, stimulating the local economy.

“If you break down the geographic barrier, then the world opens up and it’s going to be much more competitive,” Hale says.

Remote work would clean up our air, employ our rural communities, and make our state more competitive for business.

Emma Penrod is a journalist based in rural Utah who covers science, technology, business and environmental health. She writes a weekly water politics newsletter at pactio.us/host/emma-penrod and Tweets about the latest science and industry news @EmaPen. When she's not writing, reading or researching, she's hunting sagebrush-scented air fresheners.

Comments (1)

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    John Wright

    Emma,
    Very good information. Sitting on the county planning and zoning board this information is helpful as we look to working around potential congested housing and business expansion in locations whose population base is desiring open space and less traffic congestion. Still people need a place to live but perhaps we can encourage housing to be more open and not have to develop significant road development. Thanks for the information.

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